Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Government interference in the marriage contract

Jerry Stratton, June 25, 2011

To my mind, supporting (state recognition of) gay marriage is a lot like supporting white slavery. I understand the desire for equality but it seems the wrong way to go about it.

Marriage as marriage is a religious matter. It should be left to religions to decide who to bestow the rite on. To the extent people want government involved, people who get married would use standard contracts.

Ace, at Ace of Spaces HQ, argues against the libertarian position by claiming that the Marriage Contract is for user convenience. But capitalizating the two words doesn’t make it so. I find it hard to believe that anyone who believes marriage is a convenient contract has actually gone through a divorce, for example. The “marriage contract” is an amorphous collection of precedence, unstated expectations, and untested tradition. It’s not a contract in most of the senses we consider contracts.

  • There is never a point where the two parties go over their expectations and agree to a legal definition of each party’s responsibilities and benefits for the duration of the contract.
  • Few people even define how the contract will end, what triggers an end, and what each party’s obligations are when it ends.
  • Rarely is any procedure defined for how the obligations of the contract will be carried out. Even the most fundamental outcomes of a traditional marriage, children, are discussed only in the most vague terms before the parties actually have children. What the parties will do with those children afterward—how they will be raised, educated, and sent into the wider world—is left to be decided later.

These standard features of contracts are decided, if they’re decided at all, on an ad hoc basis and often after a lot of arguing. Marriage is a very poor contract that isn’t convenient for anybody who has to test its nature as a contract. Get the government out of the marriage business and let people create true marriage contracts, and we’ll see a far more stable marriage “contract” for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals—because it will be an actual contract.

Ace’s fear of losing the government program called marriage, with all of its loopholes, red tape, and bureaucratic whims, is emblematic of the problem with any government interference in our private lives. People become afraid of losing the status quo. They can’t see any other way of handling their lives without that government program. The government’s definition of the program becomes normative; and now that the government controls that part of people’s lives, people feel a genuine need to enforce their own desires for that program on others.

Once the government takes over, we end up with a single solution that doesn’t work well for most people involved and that everyone is afraid to lose. It’s the same thing we see when politicians try to fix medicare and social security from doom. Even though we know those programs are going to die we’re afraid to switch to something better. It’s what we see in education when taxpayers argue over what to teach in schools, it’s what we see in health care over abortion restrictions, and it’s what we’re seeing now in marriage over gay marriage.

People who want state support of gay marriage are the same as people who want intelligent design in government schools: the government controls that thing they want changed. And so any changes they want to make end up applying to everyone.

“I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.” — Alexis de Tocqueville (Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of the Americans)

July 3, 2015: What is the state’s role in marriage and the family?
Monster family

The family after decades of government intervention.

I have long made the argument that marriage is a religious institution that the government should stay out of. That is an argument long lost. But I’ve also made the argument that the marriage contract is anything but, and that there is a lot of room for improvement in how the state views, supports, and, too often lately, discourages marriage and family.

From our child-protection laws to our divorce laws to our welfare laws, government takes an interest in family. But for the most part it doesn’t realize that’s what it is doing. It tries to focus on individuals rather than the family, and in the process does a lot to destroy family. Too often child protection is a winner-take-all fight; welfare in effect pays people for not providing children a family, and divorce law makes the assumption that marriage is transitory but alimony that it is forever.

Gay marriage is unquestionably a huge shift in what it means to be married. It means long-standing assumptions behind government’s role in families are upended, from local laws about child care to state laws about marriage and divorce, to state and national laws about child and parental welfare. It is well past time to examine these assumptions and codify them.

Republicans should recognize that marriage has fundamentally changed marriage’s relation to family, and take this opportunity to define the federal government’s (and, at the state level, the state government’s) role in family and marriage.

Because this is new territory, the federal government should provide states with the authority to do as much as possible. We need to see as many solutions as possible to know what the best solutions are. Fix the problems created on the national level in the past, but when it comes to making new, untested, policy, give the states the opportunity to experiment.

Government policies have for decades now encouraged a family structure breakdown. The Great Society has turned out to be profoundly antisocial. But a free country requires families that care for each other and that produce good citizens. Not just because it means less crime and less welfare spending, but because a country of people cared for by the government—a country of Julias and Winstons—will inevitably demand less freedom.

  1. <- Broken windows at the ATM
  2. Obama’s default ->